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Veronica Flores and her daughter Rosalina Flores try to connect to the free internet service at Reidy Creek Elementary School. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

While families and students confront an evolving learning landscape due to the coronavirus pandemic, school officials across the region must make critical decisions about what distance learning models to adopt for their individual school communities.

School officials from three North County school districts — Escondido Union, San Marcos Unified and Vista Unified — spent the last few weeks wrestling with how to support families who can’t afford electronic devices and broadband or otherwise can’t access the internet. And while parents have more guidance on how to set their kids up to learn from home than when schools closed weeks ago, some say they still have questions about new distance learning platforms and what student success looks like now.

Escondido Union

At Escondido Union School District, families can either log onto their teacher’s online classroom or complete a packet of coursework. The district is leaving the choice to families.

Laura Philyaw, assistant superintendent of educational services at Escondido Union, said since the district knows not all students have devices or access to internet and is distributing paper packets every Friday at all of its school sites. She said the district is training teachers how to teach virtually through platforms like Google Classroom, ClassDojo, Seesaw and Zoom.

Officials at Escondido Union School District identified roughly 2,000 students in the district who do not have internet access. Their goal is to get as many families as possible connected to a service provider by the end of this week, said Michelle Breier, a spokeswoman for the district.

The district has opened six school parking lots – at Central, Juniper, Reidy Creek, and Rock Springs elementary schools, Del Dios Academy and Mission Middle School – on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for drive-up access by community members and families without broadband access at home.

Leonard LeVine, director of information systems at Escondido Union, said the district chose those schools because they’re accessible locations and are in areas where they could boost the wifi connection.

Families that can’t access the parking lots by car can walk up to one of the sites as long as they maintain six feet of physical distance and wear a face covering, Breier said.

Breier said the district launched an effort to personally reach out to families who said they didn’t have internet access at home.

“Teachers and family liaisons helped identify families that qualify for low-cost home internet service and are coordinating with the internet service provider to connect the families,” she said.

All of about 12,000 students from third to eighth grade have iPads at home for the duration of the stay-at-home order and about 2,000 additional iPads were sent home with students in kindergarten, first and second grade, Breier said. She said the district is awaiting a shipment of 6,000 new iPads for the rest of those kindergarten, first and second grade students without devices and expects them to arrive in May.

Robin Knutson-Jones is the mother of a first-grader at Bernardo Elementary School. She said her family picked up a math, reading and writing packet with exercises for her son on Friday. She said on the first day of school on Tuesday, her older son helped get her first-grade son set up for his classroom meeting on Zoom, a video conferencing platform, while she was at work.

She said she’s glad the district decided on the mixed online and paper approach because she worried parents and students weren’t given clear instruction on what to do next when school initially closed. Now, she said her biggest concern is a lack of clear guidance on what’s optional and what’s mandatory. “It’s changing so much, but I do think there’s a little more structure now,” she said.

LeVine said students who can’t complete coursework in either form won’t be penalized.

“Our approach is going to be work that students are doing can only help … We want to support students by continuing to engage in their learning and maintaining a connection with them,” he said.

He said nothing will bring grades down – only up – and that district officials will be tracking engagement and participation. He said the district’s family liaisons will connect with students and families who are not logging in to check up on them regularly.

“We’re defining student success as maintaining a connection with our students and their families, students continue access their learning,” Philyaw, the assistant superintendent of educational services, said. “We want to maintain connection to support them through all of different circumstances surrounding us. We’re in unprecedented times.”

Vista Unified

Nearby, students at Vista Unified School District and the San Marcos Unified School District are learning completely online.

Students at Vista Unified returned to school on April 6.  Vista Unified launched an online-focused virtual learning program prior to school closures in the event they were required to move to a different teaching platform, said Nicole Allard, a spokesman for the district.

“The most important part about out virtual school is we recognize school looks different,” Allard said. “Students will have access to internet and be enrolled in Google Classroom to access websites, videos, etc. and feedback with their teachers.”

She said the district chose Google Classroom because students are already familiar with the platform, but teachers have flexibility if they want to use a class website or send out emails. Within the first week of school, 75 percent of students in the district – more than 15,000 – logged into Google Classroom, Allard said. Allard said the district distributed 14,500 devices – Google Chromebooks to high school and middle school students and iPads to younger students – and 104 additional internet hotspots last week to families in need and said the district would distribute an additional 497 hotspots week. She said officials are working with some families to get them connected to Cox internet.

Matt Doyle, superintendent at Vista Unified, said officials are close to getting all students and families connected to internet. Cipriano Vargas, a school board trustee for Vista Unified, said Qualcomm gave the district $100,000 to bring hotspot connectivity to students who don’t have it.

Vista Unified’s school board recently approved a credit or no-credit grading system to replace traditional letter grades. Vargas said the decision was made in alignment with the University of California and California State University systems. “There’s no perfect solution but credit-no-credit offers a balanced approach,” he said. “It’s a better approach to the majority, but still not a perfect solution.”

He said he knows some students may not be ready to hop on to online learning because they may be taking care of their siblings or are emotionally distressed, and that the district is focused on supporting the 25 percent of students who didn’t log in to Google Classroom last week.

“We know that some parents who are still working out in the fields are essential and at risk but are being exposed in order to earn a minimum wage,” he said.

Allard said the district and principals are going to keep up to date on the number of students logging into Google Classroom. “We will be following up and checking with them at each site, we want to make sure we’re there to support them,” she said.

Angelica Santiago, a youth empowerment program coordinator at the National Latino Research Center in San Marcos, works with Spanish-speaking and immigrant families at Vista Unified to navigate the district’s new online learning programs. She acts as a liaison between the school district and families in need.

Santiago said Vista Unified is doing a good job connecting families with Google Chromebooks, iPads and hotspots, which has helped take stress off of parents. But there is still some confusion among parents about how to navigate a virtual school particularly when Spanish is their main language and they are not able to manage many of the challenges of setting up and maintaining computers, she said. She said parents are worried about how to help their students academically – particularly with English-learners.

“Parents are very stressed about it because they have to worry about income, rent and food right now and they don’t know how to navigate online work,” she said. “It’s a huge struggle for immigrant families. They are dealing with stress and how to get food. Virtual school is put behind them when they have to prioritize all these challenges.”

She said students living with multiple families in their household and those who don’t have desks to work at don’t have the capacity to actually study or focus on schoolwork at home.

“We have family liaisons touching base with families who might have difficulties and a hotline available every day 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” she said. “All of our of teachers are reaching out and liaisons and teachers are reaching out to students to see if they’re OK.”

San Marcos Unified

San Marcos Unified School District’s distancing learning plan also relies on students having access to a device.

Tiffany Campbell, an assistant superintendent of equity and secondary schools at San Marcos Unified, said teachers are using Google Classroom and Google Meet to communicate with students, and classes use a variety of digital resources that students can access at home to supplement core curriculum.

On Mondays, teachers in the district will attend training sessions and engage in planning and professional development. Then during the remainder of the week, teachers lead online instruction for three hours each morning before allowing students time to do independent coursework and meet with them for office hours, she said.

Campbell said schools surveyed and called families to understand device and internet needs and determined many of its students – particularly those enrolled in one of the district’s economically disadvantaged Title 1 schools – are lacking one or the other.

She said the district distributed 7,000 Google Chromebooks to students in the last few weeks during school closures, and that it will continue to monitor those needs as it launches its learning plan this week. It’s is also working with local internet providers to help needy families obtain internet service. To date, 92 percent of students in the district are participating in the distance learning model, with some schools reporting 100 percent participation, she said.

“Our goal is to ensure continuity of learning and to salvage the remainder of the school year for our students in order to mitigate the amount of remediation necessary when we return to normal operations as a school district,” Campbell said.

Kayla Jimenez

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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